Saturday, 7 July 2012

From Elvira to Sieglinde - interview with Claire Rutter

Claire Rutter as Norma, John Hudson as Pollione in Norma, Grange Park Opera 2009
Claire Rutter as Norma,
John Hudson as Pollione in Norma,
Grange Park Opera 2009
photo Alastair Muir
Next year soprano Claire Rutter will make her debut in two roles, Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani and Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walkure. She will sing Elvira at Grange Park Opera with conductor Gianluca Marciano in a production in which it is intended to perform the work in all the original keys (which will certainly make life interesting for the tenor singing Arturo). Sieglinde she will be singing at the Opera de Rennes, with Willard White as Wotan.

The first role is a pinnacle of the bel canto repertoire and the second one of the major peaks for Wagnerian dramatic soprano. Rutter’s debut as Sieglinde is all the more remarkable because this will be her first ever Wagnerian role, in fact her first German language role. Unlike many sopranos, she has never even strolled in the Wagnerian foothills, never having done the woodbird, Freia or Gutrune. Rutter is known for her singing of the Italian bel canto repertoire but her she has proved equally at home in Verdi and Puccini. Now she is dipping her toes into Hochdramatischer Soprano fach, whilst expanding on to her existing bel canto repertoire


Rutter has the rather admirable but old fashioned view that soprano should be able to sing everything. It comes as no surprise to learn that one of her heroines is the Wagnerian soprano Florence Easton, who was one of Puccini’s early Butterflys and for whom the composer wrote the role of Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, thus rather contradicting the modern view of the role as a soubrette (For those interested, here’s Easton singing O mio babbino caro on Youtube). In fact, Easton was one of the few sopranos to sing both Brunnhilde and Norma in the same season. Another such rara avis was English dramatic soprano Rita Hunter who encompassed both these roles. It turns out that Rutter had lessons with Hunter and is an admirer of the soprano from Wallasey’s ability to float her high notes, but also to put weight into her voice where necessary. (Here's Hunter singing Casta Diva on Youtube). In fact, during one of Rutter’s lessons with Hunter, when they were studying Gilda, Hunter sang Caro nome beautifully to Rutter.

Rutter’s also had lessons with Pauline Tinsley, another famously versatile soprano. But she also spent some weeks in the South of France studying the role of Violetta with Ileana Cotrubas. Cotrubas taught Rutter to sing with the whole of the palate of colours available to her in her voice, something that she wasn’t doing at the time. Cotrubas took for granted the Rutter knew all the technical detail and concentrated on going beyond this, to colouring the voice and interpreting the role.

Rutter comments about her own voice, that she has a very high facility; she feels most comfortable in bel canto roles because the roles sit higher. But that with the bright overtones in her voice she is able to singing bigger roles. This means that she feels equally at home as Abigaille or as Gilda, and still warms up using the scales from Sempre libera.

That said, she feels that some roles call for rather more bel canto technique than is often given them nowadays, Aida is a case in point. This is a role which Rutter has some experience with, not only singing it at the London Coliseum in the famous Xandra Rhodes designed production, but also singing eight performances at the Royal Albert Hall. Of these latter, she says that they took some strength and bravery. But she is firmly of the belief that Aida should be sung from a bel canto soprano point of view,  after all the idea is that Aida should be contrasted to Amneris. There are places where you have to float on the top of the voice and if you cannot do this, then you are not doing the role justice. In the Nile Scene, the famous top C should be sung quietly, something that few sopranos do; Rutter cites Caballe as being supreme in this.

Rutter’s teacher told her that there were two difficult top C’s in Verdi, the first in Aida and the second in Un ballo in maschera. In fact Amelia is another role which Rutter feels should be sung with more bel canto technique and she will be returning to this role next season with Finnish National Opera.

I spoke to Claire Rutter just after the end of her run in Madama Butterfly at Grange Park Opera. This was her debut in the role and though it caused something of stir that she was doing the role, she points out that in fact early Butterflys (like Florence Easton) did in fact have quite dramatic voices. Though the role did require some work to produce the floated high D flat in the opening, the later scenes require more weight. To Rutter, Butterfly grows up at a very specific point in the opera, half way through the letter scene. Till then she has been playful and hopeful, but once Sharpless has suggested she marry Yamadori she becomes serious about her emotions from then on. And from then on the role requires more dramatic weight in the voice.

Butterfly was something of a challenge for Rutter, as much of the role lies middling and low. To help with this, she went for some lessons with Laura Sarti (another of her earlier teachers) and they worked on the lower end of the voice. Whereas with Tosca, she uses her chest voice a lot, with Butterfly (the character being just 15) this would be less appropriate and with Sarti she put in the work to enable her to avoid using the chest except for one or two moments. When I talk about listening, as a student, to an old recording of Isobel Baillie singing the love duet and marvelling at how she had to go in to chest voice (a very rare thing for Baillie), Rutter knew exactly the passage I was talking about. (Isobel Baillie and Francis Russell singing the love duet from Madama Butterfly on Youtube)

Rutter also worked with Sarti on the sound quality for Butterfly, removing portamenti and cleaning the vocal production up so that she used a cleaner, purer sound more suitable to a 15 year old geisha. The director of the Grange Park Opera production, John Doyle was very specific in his direction, wanting to ensure that the look was securely Japanese. To this end the choreographer spend time in Japan and studied Japanese dance and was present at all times, watching the singers movements. Rutter was heavily costumed and her movements were calculated to emulate those of a geisha being married, as the young woman would be wearing so many layers that she would barely be able to move.

Rutter’s debut in the role of Madama Butterfly came about as a result of visiting Grange Park Opera some years ago and meeting Wasfi Kani, the festival’s founder. The two women had known each other when Rutter was studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. With Rutter’s then recent move to nearby Winchester, Kani was keen capitalise on having a soprano living on her door step. The outcome was Rutter’s debut as Norma at Grange Park Opera in 2009. Such was the success of this, that Rutter followed it up with Tosca and Kani encouraged her to provide a wish-list of roles. Butterfly and Elvira were both on the list, with the promise of more to come.

When it comes to her debut as Sieglinde, Rutter finds the role is psychologically interesting and quite a challenge. But she is clear that she will sing the role with her own voice, and not try to manufacture anything. She does point out that Wagner actually wrote for Italianate voices, but that in recent years singers use a less Italianate sound in this repertoire. Though in the last 100 years, orchestras have got 20 per cent louder, whilst voices have not changed.

Though not having sung the German repertoire, this is partly because the opportunities did not happen at the right time. Rutter is wary of being put in a niche and warns of the difficulties of diversifying, so she was pleased that the opportunity came up when it did.

She might not have done any German opera, but German song is definitely in her repertoire. She and harpist Clare Jones will be giving a recital at the Buxton Festival which will include Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock. Also included will be a number of bel canto arias as well as Dvorak’s Rusalka, in arrangements made for harp; something that Rutter thinks works very well in this repertoire. By coincidence whilst Rutter was singing Butterfly, with the English Chamber Orchestra in the pit, the orchestra were recording Jones’s first solo disc on their days off.


Rutter's husband is the baritone Stephen Gadd, who sang Sharpless to her Butterfly at Grange Park. Gadd will be opening this year's Buxton Festival in Richard Strauss's Intermezzo. Indeed, one idea had been that husband and wife, Rutter and Gadd, play the husband and wife (Robert and Pauline) in Intermezzo; Rutter considered the role but wisely decided that to be learning and rehearsing a big role like Pauline whilst at the same time performing in Madama Butterfly was not a good idea.

When asked about her ideal roles, she says that she is lucky enough to have been able to sing many of them. She would love to return to Norma having found the role a physical and technical challenge, regarding it as her biggest challenge so far, for its length and for its emotional intensity. In terms of new roles, she would love to play Donizetti’s queens, Elizabeth I, Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, but accepts that it is the Verdi and Puccini heroines that get her the repeat bookings. 



The role of Brunnhilde clearly isn’t on the radar at the moment, Rutter is determined to get Sieglinde under her belt before even thinking about any other dramatic German roles. But when we come back to the idea of emulating Florence Easton and performing Norma and Brunnhilde in the same season, a glint comes into the singer’s eye. Claire Rutter is clearly going to be a soprano to watch.


See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012

City of London Festival 2012


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